Family secrets


BOOKS:US writer Kim Edwards became a bvook club phenomenon with her first novel, 'The Memory Keeper's Daughter', and now she's back with another family saga. But it was living in rural Malaysia with a car full of books that helped form her art, she tells ANNA CAREY

WHEN A WRITER sends a book out into the world, he or she never knows what will happen. Sometimes, the book will be totally ignored. Sometimes, it’ll be politely received and then fade from public view. And sometimes, it will become the sort of wild success that rarely happens in publishing, selling millions of copies all over the world and inspiring thousands of heated book-club discussions.

This is what happened to Kim Edwards’s first novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the story of a doctor who gives his newborn daughter, who has Down Syndrome, to the care of a nurse and then tells his wife that the baby has died during the birth. When it was published in 2005, Edwards was already an award-winning short-story writer, whose first collection had been published to critical acclaim in 1997. But when the paperback edition of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter appeared in 2006, she had no idea it would become the sort of hit that most writers don’t dare dream of.

“Yes, most writers including me!” laughs Edwards, when we meet for tea in a Dublin hotel. She says that when the book took off, she already felt like a successful writer. “I was writing books, which had always been my dream. I had won awards, and even though my books hadn’t reached many readers, they had been well received and reviewed. And I was happy in my life. So I’m really glad to have had this kind of success – which is really beyond my wildest dreams – but I’m also glad that it came when I knew myself well as a writer.”

This maturity is probably why Edwards didn’t feel too intimidated by the idea of writing novel number two. Her compelling new book, The Lake of Dreams, follows its heroine Lucy’s attempts to find out the truth about her great-great-aunt Rose, a woman who was written out of the family’s history. Edwards had already been working on the book for more than a year by the time The Memory Keeper’s Daughterbecame a huge hit. “I knew Lucy and was intrigued by the story, and I knew I wanted to keep writing it,” she says. “Which was a very wonderful thing, as it turned out. Because when the excitement around The Memory Keeper’s Daughter died down, I could go back to a familiar literary landscape, to characters I knew and a story that intrigued me. I was very fortunate to have that.”

Edwards did, however, have to isolate herself from the world to some degree in order to concentrate on the novel. She lives, with her husband and two teenage daughters, in Lexington, Kentucky, where she’s currently on an extended sabbatical from her job as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

There was no chance of her heading to a writer’s retreat or isolated cabin to avoid all distractions.“If I could have, I would have,” she says. “But I have kids. Someone has to make the dinner. But I metaphorically did that – I became kind of a hermit. I didn’t go out a lot and I shut off the internet during the hours when I had to write.”

She sometimes misses her old job but has, she says, achieved a pretty good work-life balance as she works on her third novel (she won’t give away any details about it). “I love those peaceful hours of writing time, but when my daughters come home from school it’s really nice to be able to step away from the imagined world and my intense engagement with it.”

Edwards is happily settled in Kentucky (although she does now own a summer home in the Finger Lakes district in upstate New York, where she grew up and where The Lake of Dreamsis set). But as a younger woman, she did plenty of travelling when she and her husband headed off to Asia to teach English. They first lived in rural Malaysia, and although they were living in an isolated area with no bookstores (“Every so often we’d drive to Singapore and fill the trunk of the car with books”), she says her time there “formed my habits and my voice as a writer. If I was going to have a literary life, I had to create it. And it gave me the freedom to write. It was before the internet, so I couldn’t submit things. And so I didn’t worry about publishing, I just wrote. I took a lot of risks, I read tremendously from the trunk of the car, writers I might not have encountered otherwise. And ultimately it was a very rich literary experience.”

She drew on her Asian adventures when writing about Lucy, who, at the start of the book, is living in Japan and then returns to her childhood home. Like its predecessor, The Lake of Dreamsis a story of tangled family secrets, and both novels feature parents who are estranged from their children in different ways; in The Lake of Dreams, Lucy’s aunt Rose was cut off from her family and her own child because of her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement.

“What interests me as a writer,” says Edwards, “are the ways in which the social mores of a particular time put pressure on individual characters, and how the character responds to the circumstances of that time and place. One of the strongest human bonds is between parent and child, and in both books social expectations – of what should happen to people with a disability in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, of the position of women in The Lake of Dreams– put enormous pressures on individuals and relationships.”

As we enthusiastically discuss women’s history and stained-glass art (another running theme throughout the novel), it’s clear that despite her success, Edward’s feet are firmly on the ground. “I think has helped me keep an even keel through all the wild excitement around The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. I just went back to what I’ve been doing for all these years.”

She did, however, allow herself a little joke about her own success in The Lake of Dreams. In one scene, Lucy’s mother is reading an unnamed book with a cover showing a baby’s gauzy dress against a dark background – the striking image on the cover of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. “For a long time I was trying to figure exactly when The Lake of Dreamswas set in order to get all the dates right, and it became clear that the only year it could happen was 2006 . So I put the reference in there, and I wasn’t sure whether I should take it out, but I was amused by it and most readers have found it funny.” She could, I suggest, start giving her own books cameos in all subsequent novels. “Maybe I will,” she laughs. “I’ll be a sort of literary Hitchcock.”

The Lake of Dreams, by Kim Edwards, is published by Penguin Viking, £18.99/€22